EXCLUSIVE: Didier Lupfer might just have been the busiest man in Cannes. The well-respected Lupfer is chairman and chief exec of Studio Canal, by some measure Europe’s biggest film company with distribution in the UK, France, Germany, Benelux (as well as Australia and New Zealand) and a thriving multi-lingual production business. As if that wasn’t enough, he is also the head of cinema at Canal Plus, the troubled French pay TV giant that looms large over the French film biz.
Lupfer’s appointment last September saw him take over the responsibilities of Canal’s former head of cinema Nathalie Coste-Cerdan and outgoing StudioCanal chief Olivier Courson. Lupfer joined the Vivendi-owned Canal from video game company Ubisoft, where he had been the head of production and development at its Ubisoft Motion Pictures arm. Ubisoft Motion Pictures was set up in 2011 to adapt the likes of Assassin’s Creed for the big screen. Lupfer’s credits also include Joann Sfar’s well-received biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life.
In addition to his already full agenda dealing with film and TV, Lupfer will no doubt be a central figure in Vivendi’s ongoing battle for control of French video game publisher Gameloft as well as Ubisoft. Vivendi in February officially launched its hostile takeover for Gameloft — founded by France’s Guillemot brothers, who also own Assassin’s Creed publisher Ubisoft, another Vivendi target. Vivendi has been steadily increasing its stake in both Gameloft and Ubisoft for some months now. Gameloft’s board rejected the first offer on the grounds that Vivendi’s takeover was not in the best interests of the company and “does not have a single business that could offer Gameloft synergies.” That hasn’t deterred Vincent Bollore, the billionaire chairman of Vivendi which owns Canal Plus and Studio Canal, to return days later and increase the offer to €7.20 per share from the previous offer of €6 per share. That would have valued the company at around €610 million ($660 million). Gameloft shares jumped almost 9% to €7.40 a share on news that Vivendi was coming back for the company.
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Lupfer is in a somewhat unique position, at the helm of the thriving Studio Canal — recent hits include the David Heyman-produced Paddington and Tom Hardy-starrer Legend — as well as overseeing the cinema policy at the ailing Canal Plus, forecast to lose €400 million in 2016.
Lupfer managed to find some time in his back-to-back schedule to sit with Deadline at Cannes and discuss the challenges — and opportunities — ahead.
DEADLINE: What can Studio Canal offer filmmakers they can’t find with a major American studio?
LUPFER: There are more spaces with us. They will not be controlled. Sometimes with the studio, you have the director when they are in the editing phase, the studio sits close to them, or puts them behind them and takes control of the movie. This is not what we want to do on our side.
DEADLINE: Studio Canal is thriving with much success,but Canal Plus appears to be filled with problems.
LUPFER: Yes, at Canal we have problems, but we have solutions. What we know now with Vincent and the management team, we how to intervene and out to stop the problem. That’s very important. It’s like when something is wrong with you body, you see the doctor and you’re examined and then you know what kind of solution we need to provide to stop the hemorrhaging. On the Studio Canal side, it’s more about providing content for everybody, for Canal, for platforms that might be with or without us, sometimes it’s against Canal+, but more with us and less against us. That’s very important. What we want to do on the Studio Canal side is be more pushy and reactive on the development phase. That means we will be able to attract more talent and do more than we are doing today. We are doing very good things but I think that we are able to make more, work with more talent and finance the movies together or alone. The potential is very, very important. There is a big, big place for us to be partnered with the U.S. In the U.S., the industry is more and more focused on IP.
I know what it is because I used to work with Ubisoft for five years and Ubisoft is only IP. They create IP and they are the best at it. On the games side they are the best, with the comics as well. They are trying to develop it on the movie side. Assassin’s Creed is in post-production now. In the U.S., there are a couple of models to follow on the IP side. They invest a lot of money on the first film, such as with Marvel, to win more on the second one, the sequel, the spinoff and so on. Look at Europe. There is a lot of IP here. We are in a strong position, which comes from the fact that Europe is a multicultural area. There are more countries and ideas we can develop. Within Studio Canal, this is absolutely the strategy we want to push, to become the content factory of Vivendi.
DEADLINE: And that desire to control more IP is behind the strategy behind trying to acquire Gameloft and Ubisoft?
LUPFER: Yes, absolutely. And others as well. We are looking at comics, original ideas and so on and, to speak frankly, we want to be talent-oriented, which is not the case with the studios. We want to attract European talent. That’s very important. And when they are strong locally, our idea is to help them become more international. On the TV side, it’s the same.
DEADLINE: You mentioned with Canal that you’ve identified the solutions. Can we discuss what those solutions are?
LUPFER: It’s confidential [laughing]. I can’t share them exactly yet but from my side, the movie side, what to do. It’s a problem of editorial organization. What is the promise of Canal Plus concerning the subscribers who come for the movies? We have selected ways forward for those kinds of things and for those kinds of reasons. I know how to do it and how to translate it concretely in the grid.
DEADLINE: What’s the latest with the Ubisoft and the Gameloft situations?
LUPFER: We are in both companies. We are trying to work with them. Today it’s a little bit complicated. We’ll see. Maybe we’ll increase but for sure we won’t stay at this level. There are a lot of synergies between a company like Ubisoft and a company like Vivendi. Maybe they are too protective. You know, when I met Yves Guillemot for the first time, he showed me pictures of Walt Disney in 1937 where he was looking at the model, from 80 years ago, that he wanted to create content which would be available for TV, theatre, theme parks and so on. This is absolutely what Yves Guillemot showed me the first time I met him. He said, “I want to do this and it’s not pretentious because it’s Disney.” We at Vivendi are able to do this because, on the game side as you know, the investment is very important. You have to put your money on the table. You can’t pre-sell a game. It’s very complicated. At the incubation and development phase, it’s very important. It’s more than two, three, four, five years. It means that the investments in IP are very important. And having that kind of IP, whether Raving Rabbids or Assassin’s Creed or whatever, being strong on the video game side, being on mobile, and creating a TV service, creating an animated show for TV, creating a movie for the theatre, creating a theme park attraction, etc, is very important. When I came back to work with Vincent Bollore at Canal, after I had worked there over 10 years ago, the first picture he showed me was that same model of Walt Disney from 1937. It’s very interesting. Both Vincent and Yves are two visionaries that have the same vision of creating something which is global and adaptable to TV, movies, theme parks, licensing, merchandising, books, comics and models. I think that they have the same vision.
DEADLINE: Synergy is very important for the Vivendi group, especially utilizing the assets of Universal Music Group with those of Canal Plus and Studio Canal.
LUPFER: Absolutely. We have a lot of IP on the UMG side. Look at The Beatles, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff. There are a lot of strong things we can develop together with them. That is part of the strategy. For example, we are developing a TV show called Abbey Road. It’s a way to tell the story of the Beatles without the Beatles, but as a background. It’s fully original. We have a lot of ideas like this with UMG head Lucian Grange and his team.
DEADLINE: On the film side of things, which are the ideas or the relationships you have, for example with Working Title and David Heyman, that excite you the most?
LUPFER: On our side, working with talent like Eric Newman, David Heyman, Working Title, is very interesting and very profitable for all of us. Altogether we are good at creating great content. I want to develop more because we have the potential to do it. We can be an alternative to the studios. That’s very important. We don’t want to compete with the studios. We don’t want to buy Paramount or whatever. I think that Studio Canal could be a very good alternative to the studios with a big, big, big European anchor. As for longer term in North America with the distribution of our films, today it’s a case-by-case basis. We are doing well, sometimes it’s with Focus, or Lionsgate or the Weinsteins. As far as today, we don’t want to create something on the U.S. side. We want more to see the U.S. as partners for the movies we are developing. We work across different genres, whether family-oriented, action or more talent-led, true story material, so we want that flexibility of partner.
Today, for example, we are developing Entebbe about the 1974 hijacking and rescue with Jose Padilha directing. Very interesting type of movie. For that kind of stuff, for sure there’s an appeal more to work with the Focus, Searchlight type of company. For the other genres, maybe someone else is more suited. We are not married to one specific party. It depends on the movie projects. To launch our own domestic distribution would be a whole other job. The Vivendi group tried before to be strong in the U.S. on the movie twice. We know the consequences.
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